China's growing relevance for regional security in Europe
Frans-Paul van der Putten, coordinator of the Clingendael China Centre, was asked to contribute to a ChinaFile conversation on Europe's China policy.
The EU-China summit on April 1 did not halt the ongoing deterioration of relations between the two actors. At the summit, the EU leaders talked primarily about the war in Ukraine, while their Chinese counterparts tried to avoid that topic. Afterwards, EU High Representative Josep Borrell expressed disappointment that Beijing refuses to name Russia as the aggressor, and that it did not even commit to what he regarded as what is minimally necessary. That includes asking Russia for a ceasefire and for a humanitarian corridor, and insisting that it will not use weapons of mass destruction.
But while the EU-China summit ended with no deliverables or joint statement, it did provide insight into where relations between the two actors might go. The crisis in Ukraine is revealing China’s new role as a security actor in Europe. Along with Russia and the United States, China is now a major player when it comes to European stability. It derives its influence not from its military power, but from its huge economy and close ties with Russia. The main instrument used by the EU to pressure Russia into ending the war is the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. China has the ability to either amplify the effect of these sanctions, which are potentially very costly for the EU itself, or weaken their impact. This explains the strong emphasis the EU leaders placed on the Ukraine war as a topic for discussion at the summit. The fact that the Chinese leadership did not commit to either support or abstain from circumventing the European sanctions does not diminish China’s relevance.
In recent years, Europeans have become increasingly aware that China is a factor that influences the trans-Atlantic relationship. As China became a top concern for U.S. foreign policy, it subsequently moved higher on the agendas of European politicians and policymakers. The war in Ukraine is now making it apparent that China is also an important factor in the EU-Russia relationship. If, in the years ahead, Russia continues to be seen as a major security threat to the EU, the European approach to China may increasingly center not on concerns about values or economic competition, but on China’s relevance for regional security in Europe.